In Too Deep

THE DEEPEST MAP: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World’s Oceans, by Laura Trethewey

In the past days, the world has been riveted by the story of the Titan submersible, which we now know imploded some 1,600 feet from the wreckage of the Titanic, killing all aboard. Beyond the human tragedy — and the macabre fact that James Cameron’s blockbuster is trending online — comes an opportunity for serious reflection.

Until recently, the exploration of the ocean floor has gone largely unnoticed by the greater part of the population. Humans have “conquered” the world’s surfaces and mountaintops. The oceans, however, have largely escaped such close scrutiny, with their floors far less well known than the surfaces of the moon, or Mars. Inevitably, some are now turning to the immensely more challenging seven-tenths of the planetary surface, the sea. And as we have seen, this can be dangerous.

A worldwide push is currently underway to have the seas’ cold dark depths fully mapped, with the work to be completed by the end of this decade, no less. Laura Trethewey, a Canadian writer long captivated by matters maritime, has written “The Deepest Map,” a gripping and all-too-timely account of what in more ways than one is turning out to be a very costly and questionably necessary race to the bottom.

Once, mapping had a noble goal. Two such international attempts to map the entire world as a single entity were launched around the turn of the last century. The one devoted to mapping the land surface became mired in nationalistic squabbles, and it petered to a halt in 1989. The sea’s mapmakers fared rather better, however, and the effort born in 1903 to create GEBCO, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, has long managed to survive.

But for our urgent modern requirements, mere survival is not sufficient. Thanks to the inconvenient presence of the water obscuring the seabed, GEBCO has remained something of a chimera, the seafloor still largely terra nullius, GEBCO’s few published sheets of little accuracy or practical use. The project’s long-established connection with the principality of Monaco — the Grimaldi family rulers being keen amateur oceanographers — is seen in today’s light as little more than dreamily charming. New blood, new energy, has long been badly needed.

Hence the commencement in 2017 of the Seabed 2030 project, intended to inject some ginger into what was initially a fine ideal, to wake everyone up — and hence the 2003 arrival, most interestingly, of a philanthropic body called the Nippon Foundation, which has started to fund much of it. I say interestingly, because Trethewey has dredged up some fascinating background on the Nippon Foundation, and it is none too pretty.

The Tokyo-based body was founded by one Ryoichi Sasakawa, an industrial and gambling magnate who long ago befriended Mussolini, had his own private air force, dubbed himself “the world’s wealthiest fascist” — and was after the war charged as a Class A war criminal. He managed to avoid execution, was eventually released, and founded a gambling empire based on — the story gets increasingly weird — the Japanese sport of motorboat racing.

His philanthropy, designed, presumably, to burnish his posthumous reputation, is now Japan’s largest, and it has given at least $18 million to help the Seabed 2030 project. Many groups, especially in France, have refused to accept money from Nippon, accusing it of promoting right-wing and nationalist views. But the undersea mapmakers take a more relaxed view, wishing only to complete their task, passing no judgment on their donor.

Trethewey records with similar detachment the activities of another larger-than-life figure who has lately also entered the ocean-mapping world. Victor Vescovo is a Dallas-based private equity millionaire who, the author notes, “has completed the Explorers Grand Slam, summiting the highest mountains on all seven continents and skiing to both poles. He owns a helicopter and a jet he pilots himself … He has powder blue eyes and paper-white skin and long ash-blond hair that he wears pulled back in a low ponytail.”

Vescovo lacked an ocean-exploring vessel (Microsoft’s Paul Allen had one, and Eric Schmidt of Google another), and at the time this book was begun was bent on piloting the very strongly built metal capsule he had named Limiting Factor, carried aboard his research ship Pressure Drop, and diving it to the bottom deepest trench in each of the five oceans in the marine universe.

By the time the book was done Vescovo had indeed plumbed all the depths, but not without drama. The author notes a blizzard of rows and encounters with bureaucrats, of obstacles to having undersea features his team found named as he wished, and moments of undignified rivalry with other deep-sea big dogs like James Cameron (who has weighed in extensively on the Titan disaster). In the end the Dallas millionaire gave it all up and blasted away. But before doing so, he gave to Seabed 2030 all of the mapping his project had accumulated.

And by such gentlemanly acts, and with revenue from Sasakawa’s money, with the use of scores of volunteer vessels big and small, with gravity-sensing satellites noting from above little bulges in the sea surface suggesting big bulges on the sea floor beneath, and with vast expenditures of both testosterone and treasure, our oceans’ floors are now being charted in the greatest detail.

On the maps being fashioned from data that pours into the project center in southern England, so the seabed’s every jot is being fixed, with no algae-covered seamount — with which a U.S. nuclear submarine collided in 2021 — overlooked, no canyon left unmarked.

And yet — to what end? Is it all motivated by the guileless desire for scientific knowledge for its own sake, for that other desire, for completeness, that the Edwardian-era cartographers had in mind? Or is today’s mapmaking frenzy perhaps concerned instead with the rather less noble business of making money?

Trethewey rises to the occasion here, relating in absorbing detail the ebb and flow of conflicting interests that tussle down among the vents and ridges of the hadal zone. It is all highly readable, and it is all deeply ominous.

A forgivable measure of the book is narrative. But the penultimate chapter, “Mining the Deep,” is what this story is truly about — the accelerating potential for a brutal scavenging of the wealth that we know is lying, hitherto untouched, deep in the oceans’ deepest deeps.

The author’s words should be required reading. Those tempted to turn away from their implications should imagine the dire possibilities enabled by the new maps: armadas of mining ships loaded with cranes and drums of cable and giant claws and submarine dragline excavators, all jostling for space above those still-uncharted places where cobalt and nickel and zinc and gold are known to lie.

We are newly reminded of the tragic consequences of testing the ocean’s power. And in our yearning for the conquest of our planet, should perhaps foresee the evident perils of racing headlong into its abyss.

Simon Winchester’s latest book is “Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic.”

THE DEEPEST MAP: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World’s Oceans | By Laura Trethewey | 320 pp. | Harper | $32

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